After years of fine-tuning its various motorcycle racing titles, developer Milestone has made a significant detour with Hot Wheels Unleashed. Rather than striving for simulative handling and realistic routes and locations, this new project brings Mattel’s ever-popular die-cast vehicles to life in a modern game. It’s certainly a change of pace for the studio, but his racing experience and love of high quality graphics have resulted in an arcade racer that looks and feels pretty awesome.
The car models in particular are wonderful. There are dozens and dozen of Hot Wheels vehicles that can be collected in the game, and each of them have been carefully recreated. Honestly, it’s a joy just to look at – the materials are brilliantly rendered, right down to the imperfections like the joints where the plastic meets in the mold. We spent quite a bit of time spinning the cars around on the selection screen.
They look a lot like little toy cars, and that’s how they feel when you drive them. Driving the classic bright orange tracks (albeit significantly wider than in real life) is an extremely arcade race. Sweeping turns make for some huge powerslides, and they feel great when you pull them gently. It may take a while to figure out how to handle the game, but once you acclimate, you’ll spend less time hitting the barriers and more time boosting and drifting like a champion. The race is fast and chaotic – cars can knock each other out, and the many tracks included have many twists, turns and jumps to deal with.
There’s physics in the game too, which means you may need a boost to get through a loop de-loop, and you can also use that boost to control yourself in the air, possibly course corrections if you have one Hit the ramp at a strange angle. Overall, the qualification threshold is surprisingly high; it feels like there is definitely room to find some super-technical maneuvers with the mid-air controls. Milestone seems to understand that this game is going to have a wide audience, and the physics gives hardcore fans something to chew on while younger or more casual drivers have a good time simply drifting around corners and collecting cars.
Hot Wheels City Rumble is the meat of the single player experience, featuring numerous fast-paced races and time trials on the game’s generous tracks. You will get in-game currency, new parts to customize your basement, and a car or two when you fill out the card. As you slowly work your way through the overworld, you will also encounter boss races. These are key events that feature some of the more interesting hazards and longest stretches in the game and will reward you with most of the things too. Secret events require you to meet certain criteria before they are unlocked. It’s a fun idea, but they seem to mainly rely on you to win races in certain cars, which is a little tricky when most of your collection is unlocked at random.
Yes, the game’s blind boxes are your main way of getting new vehicles. While you unlock a few specific Hot Wheels within the City Rumble campaign, the vast majority of your cars will come from these lootbox-style items. Earned or bought with currency in the single player events above, you’ll open these things up quite a lot. Cars have rarities, so once your collection fills up you may get a few iterations, which isn’t very fun.
The good news is that duplicates can be disassembled or sold in exchange for gears or currency so you can then upgrade your cars or buy something else. A limited offer area in the shop rotates a handful of vehicles so you can either check there to see if a favorite pops up or try your luck with blind boxes. It’s kind of fun to open them up and get something cool, but we imagine if you wanted to fill your garage with every car you could grind for a while.
Still, there are plenty of other ways to fill in your time in between collecting the Hot Wheels yourself. Split screen for two players is in and works a treat, with no noticeable impact on the smooth performance of the game at 60 frames per second. In online multiplayer, you can take on up to 11 other racers, either on Milestone’s tracks or on community-created tracks that are obviously hit-or-miss.
Speaking of which, a robust route editor lets you drive into town on your very own laps and routes. It’s a surprisingly in-depth mode that the developer apparently used to build their own stages. Track pieces click together, but you have a lot of freedom in the shape of each piece and can add special modules to add some hazards, split paths, anti-gravity sections and more to your race. It’s easy to use once you’ve learned how it works, and the need to validate tracks before sharing means you can’t troll others with impossible routes. It’s a really nice shot and along with a similarly deep paint job editor gives you plenty of options to customize your own experience.
The problem with the game’s tracks, whether created by users or developers, is that they can all feel very similar. There are a handful of surrounding environments that give you a change of scenery, but they are very static and don’t add much to the gameplay. Hazards like the spider shooting out webs to catch you or the snake opening and closing its mouth are more annoying than entertaining, and many of the trails end up blurring.
We would also say that collecting cars becomes pointless unless you are really all interested in collecting cars once you find a good one. When you have a vehicle or two that you can use to win races and time attacks on a regular basis, there is little reason to waste energy trying to win others. The bumper car is cute, but it won’t be compared to a slick runabout with higher stats in every category. Like I said, the cars are great fun to collect, but all you need are a few to walk you through the game yourself.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a rock-solid arcade racing game that gets a lot of things right, but just can’t quite keep up in some areas. The drift-heavy handling and physics-based chaos make for super fun action on the track, and the cars themselves are just as good to look at as they are to drive. While the tracks feel a bit the same and the random nature of the unlocks can lead to frustration, the end result is a robust racing game that will appeal to fans big and small.